Going on a Cruise Part 3 – Save on Board and on Transportation

This is part three of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising.  In the second post, I showed how to get the best deals when booking a cruise.

In this post I want to cover other ways to save money on cruises while on board and while traveling from your home to the cruise terminal.


Saving money while on board

Be a cruise deadbeat like me. Cruise lines lose money on your basic cruise fare but they make it up by selling you extras while on board. Skip or limit all the extras like the photos, spa, art auction, alcohol, and in port excursions and you, too, can get a cruise subsidized by your spendthrift fellow passengers!

From reviewing Carnival’s annual report to investors, they take in around $700 per cabin per seven night cruise from selling all the extras while on board. That’s roughly the amount we pay per cabin for our entire cruise! Those sales come with an 86% gross profit margin for the company since they are selling to a captive audience once you’re on board and don’t need to set competitive prices. If you want a frozen margarita, you’re paying whatever they’re asking or you’re not getting it.

Some people claim the fun of cruising is going crazy on board and buying all those expensive drinks. And that’s okay, but it certainly changes the value proposition if you buy all that pricey booze.

You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!
You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!

Some unscrupulous souls manage to sneak alcohol aboard, thereby depriving these poor corporations of their outsized profits. I can neither confirm nor deny whether the Root of Good household has engaged in this morally ambiguous behavior. But if one were so inclined, here’s a few tips on how to do it:

  • Buy a rum runner. With these flasks, you can sneak alcohol on board like the pros during prohibition.
  • Buy a small bottle while in a port and don’t turn it over to security when you walk back on board. Odds are you won’t get caught if it’s a 375 mL bottle. If you get caught (“oops, sorry I forgot!”), they confiscate it and return it at the end of the cruise. No biggie.
  • Empty a disposable water bottle and fill with clear liquor. Or do the same to an apple juice container with amber colored spirits.

Most cruise lines allow you to bring one bottle of wine per person, so this might last you for much of the cruise if you enjoy a small glass once per day.


While on the topic of alcohol, it’s worth mentioning the bargains you can find in the liquor store on board ship or in your ports of call. On most cruises, we find some incredible deals on liquor at prices about half of what they are back at home in North Carolina. For example, we picked up a few one liter bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila for $8 each ($29 in North Carolina) and one liter bottles of Crown Royal whiskey for $16 each ($40 in North Carolina).

There is supposedly a one liter per person limit on what you can import to the US duty free but we’ve routinely bought more (like 7-8 liters for 2 of us), declared it on the Customs form, yet never paid any duties. Just smile at the Customs agent and play dumb. YMMV of course, but we “saved” $160 on top shelf liquor on our last two cruises, and even if there was an import duty assessed, it would be much less than $160.  We buy the stuff at home anyway, so we aren’t falling into the trap of spending “extra” money just because it’s cheap.  It’s been over a year since the huge liquor haul, and we still have around half of the liquor we bought.

Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.
Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.

Here’s another radical way to save while on board. Become a shareholder and get free on board credit. If you purchase 100 shares of Carnival (ticker: CCL) or Royal Caribbean (ticker: RCL) then you will get $100 per cabin on a seven night sailing on the respective cruise line or their operating subsidiaries. Carnival owns Costa, Princess, Cunard, and Holland America while Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity. You get a smaller award for shorter cruises and a larger award on longer sailings (up to $250 on 14+ night sailings). When Carnival and Royal Caribbean were trading in the $30-40 range in recent history, it wasn’t too expensive to pick up 100 shares. Both companies have done well and now trade around $50 and $90 per share, respectively, so it’s much more expensive to acquire 100 shares just for the shareholder benefit alone.

Water slide on the Costa Atlantica
Water slide on the Costa Atlantica

While you are in port, you’ll probably want to get off the ship and see stuff. The cruise line sells prepackaged excursions at near-usurious markups, but it’s easy and convenient so many cruisers buy these excursions. Save a fortune by booking your own excursions with private providers ahead of time. Even better, skip the excursions and DIY your time in port. For a cheap cab fare or bus ticket, you can usually get around town and see a few sights on your own.

Some ports, like Nassau in the Bahamas, have a few attractions within walking distance or not far away by water ferry. On our first visit to a port we like to walk around the port or town and get a feel for the area without planning any big activities.

The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau Bahamas. Manta ray!
The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. Manta ray!


Consider the total cost of the entire vacation

Think big picture. Your cruise ticket covers almost all of your expenses from the time you hop on board until your last day of the cruise when you sadly mope down the gangplank and head back home. In addition to the cruise fare, you’ll have to pay for travel to your port of departure. Squeeze out the savings on that part of the trip budget, too.

Cruises leave from all over the US coast, so check for local cruises. Paying a little more for a cruise that departs from a nearby port may save you money overall. For example, I can book a 5 night cruise from Charleston, South Carolina that’s a 4.5 hour drive from home instead of sailing from Miami that is 11.5 hours drive time from home. I’m willing to pay more (or accept a slightly worse itinerary) for a local cruise to avoid the cost and inconvenience of driving an extra 7 hours or having to fly instead of drive.

The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.
The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.

Cruises leave port around 4 pm on the day of departure, so you’ll typically want to get to the port around 12 or 1 pm to maximize your time on board and to make sure you don’t miss the cruise if you’re running late. If we’re driving to Charleston, we can leave early in the morning and make it there by noon, whereas if we’re driving to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, we definitely have to spend the night somewhere along I-95 on the way south.

The mid-day cruise departure time usually makes it impossible to fly down the day of the cruise unless you’re fortunate to have access to a very early non-stop flight to the airport near the cruise terminal. Add in a hotel night and the possibility of a taxi from airport to hotel and hotel to cruise terminal and you’re talking a large additional expense versus driving. Which is why we tend to drive to the cruise terminal, even when we’re departing from a Florida port (a 7 to 11.5 hour drive from Raleigh, NC). In addition, airfare for a family of five is way more expensive than gas for the drive to and from Florida since we can all ride in the same car.

Local ports along the east coast from north to south:

  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Cape Liberty (Bayonne, NJ)
  • Baltimore
  • Norfolk, VA
  • Charleston, SC
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Port Canaveral, FL
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Miami

Local ports along the Gulf coast from east to west:

  • Tampa, FL
  • Mobile, AL (starting in 2016)
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Galveston, TX
  • Houston

Local ports along the west coast from north to south:

  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
Carnival Fascination waterslides
Carnival Fascination water slides.  Departing from Jacksonville, Florida

From my east coast perspective, the biggest down side to choosing a local port instead of a major south Florida port like Miami or Fort Lauderdale is that the cruise won’t get to the Caribbean as quickly. You’ll probably spend additional time at sea transiting to your Caribbean island paradises, and you might not have as many days in port in the Caribbean. Your destinations might only include the Bahamas instead of other islands further away. For wintertime cruises, a non-south Florida departure might mean experiencing chilly winter weather for a day or two of your cruise (and that’s what you’re trying to escape, right?).

That’s not a complete downer, since I really enjoy time on board the ship and don’t care as much about the destinations. But it’s not as much fun being above deck in the wind when it’s 55 degrees and cloudy instead of 75-85 and sunny.

It's hard to get bored
It’s hard to get bored when there’s mini golf on board

We look at every expense of getting to the cruise terminal and try to keep those to a minimum. For cruise parking, we always skip the in terminal parking at the port that usually runs about $20 per day. Instead, we find a private off-site parking provider that typically charges $4 to $7 per day and provides a free shuttle to the cruise terminal. We’ve done this in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Quality of service varies, so be sure to do your due diligence and read the reviews.

Another popular option is a “stay and sail” hotel where you get a room the night before the cruise and it comes with free parking for the duration of your cruise and a free shuttle to/from the cruise terminal. We’ve never done this but prices tend to be around $99-159/night (roughly the cost of in terminal parking).

I could also DIY a “stay and sail” package. When we stayed at the Jacksonville Aloft hotel, they said we could leave our car there for the week while we went on the cruise. Then I could have hopped on a $15 Uber ride to the port (and you can save $20 with that link). So many options to avoid $100+ in parking fees at the port.

We usually stay at hotels for free using Starwood Preferred Guest points obtained through credit card sign up bonuses on the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card (more on credit cards), and free flights are easy to obtain as well using credit card sign up offers. I just wish I could find a good credit card bonus offer to cover a cruise fare!


Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

Cruising the Caribbean Aboard the MSC Divina


Where would you draw the line on frugality?  Limiting drinks?  Smuggling liquor?  Driving 11 hours instead of flying? 



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  1. Morning ROG….love the additional cruise tips. We also take advantage of the liquor deals. I really like the art auctions, especially the first one, free champagne and snacks…you know they are trying to loosen that arm. Doesn’t work on me, but I also enjoy checking out all the art. We do buy the one Coke package, so we don’t pay for additional soda. It pays for itself very quickly. Mr. Kash uses it as his base for some of his drinks. We still pose for pictures, but have someone in our group take pictures using the cruise ships back drops. We are planning a Disney cruise and am currently trying to figure out our best deals. Wish me luck. Have a great one.

    1. Good luck on snagging a deal on Disney! Hard to come by from what I hear.

      I’ll have to get some free champagne at the art auctions. I see those advertised on board but I’ve never taken advantage of the booze. I’d probably get bored of the art after 10 minutes and realize I’m still sober. 🙂

      1. On my last cruise (for the first time in many cruises) I went to the Champagne Art Auction. I actually had a much better time than expected. I ended up sticking around for about 45 minutes half reading my kindle and half people watching (some of the better people watching on the cruise). I had three free glasses of cheap champagne. Luckily, I don’t have discriminating taste when it comes to champagne. I showed up right around the start, but I think if I had showed up 10 minutes early and expressed any interest in art whatsoever, I would have scored at least one more glass of champagne.

        I found it very amusing that on my cut rate cruise ($400 all-in solo inside cabin for a three day weekend cruise) on Carnival (not exactly known for pulling in the high rollers) they were “auctioning” off artwork in the “forty to fifty thousand dollar range” no one bought any of those and it makes me wonder if anyone ever actually does.

        1. Mrs. RoG might be interested in this champagne art auction given her love of cheap champagne. 🙂 That’s like $30 worth of drinks per person going by the on-board prices.

          I think the art auctions with the $50,000 paintings are creating anchor points in everyone’s mind as to what “great” art can cost, so that the customers think spending $300-500 on entry level pieces is a relative bargain. From what I gather the frames are worth much more than the actual artwork, and they also make a good margin by selling premium frames and other upsells if you buy something.

      2. Well for Disney, there are occasional deals, off season always, and I have gone on Disney for some reduced prices closer to the sale date. After the paid in full date, they sometimes release some more reduce price rooms, IGT, OGT but you don’t get to know which room number, just the category type. You can get a Disney vacation account and load it with Disney gift cards you got at Staples with your Chase Ink ( 5 % back). Then for every $1000 you put in the account, you get an extra $20. Then you pay for the cruise with the disney vacation account. People also buy the gift cards to load in the vacation account through Raise, etc. and they save even more than through Staples. Also, once you are on board, you can book another cruise for 10% off and up to $200 shipboard credit. If you book the cruise through Costco as your travel agent, you get a cash back gift card upon return and I think it is about 8% of the value of your cruise. We liked the inside rooms which are cheaper as we aren’t in our room that much. Sodas are free and we didn’t really buy much on board and always book our excursions from places highly recommended on trip advisor so that saves money. All the kids clubs are free and we didn’t feel that there were pushy upsells on stuff like water or alchohol- it was presented to us once upon boarding- but the person was not pushy about it. Disney cruise line blog does mention some reduced price sailings but if you follow some disney cruise groups, their information is more detailed.

        1. Wow, excellent detailed tips on saving on Disney cruises, and many are applicable to other cruise lines as well I bet. I’m always looking to stack those smaller 2%, 5%, 8%, or 10% discounts together plus some on board credit or cash back. You can buy gift cards for Carnival and possibly other cruise lines, so anywhere that has those gift cards and a good % back on a credit card or some bonus for buying gift cards would end up being pretty good. Although the ebates 7% back on cruises through Travelocity is a very compelling (and easy) start combined with a 2% cash back credit card. 9% off plus you get to pick anything travelocity offers, including Disney Cruises, and you get any sales or promos travelocity is running (like on board credits on some Disney sailings, for example).

          The rebooking on board is another cool trick. On our last Carnival cruise, they were offering around $100 per cabin if you book another cruise. So tempting to do it and stay on board for another cruise, but we didn’t want to keep the kids out of school for any more time.

  2. I’m loving these cruise posts as we’re trying come up with an itinerary for our cruise involving our extended family! And of course, it’s going to be pricey however we cut it since we’re used to having so much covered by our hotel and airline miles.

    We’re not big drinkers, but we would consider smuggling some alcohol on board. But we definitely wouldn’t drive to port. Primarily, because our closest port is Boston and there aren’t great options from there. And lengthy drives are not our thing. We did drive about 8 hours in one day from Prince Edward Island back to our home in Maine, but it wasn’t fun. Not sure we’ll be doing anything of that length again soon.

    Have you ever done a European cruise? We have a lot of cruisers in our family who have done most of the Caribbean. Europe would be more expensive, but I think it would be more our speed. Thanks for all this helpful information!

    1. I wouldn’t drive down from Maine either! 🙂 I’m no fan of long distance driving, but dealing with the airlines, security, parking, shuttles, missed connections, etc is even less fun than a 7-11 hour drive. Those long drives back from Miami do suck though. By hour 6 or 7 I’m definitely ready to be home and dreading crossing South Carolina (sorry fine folks to my south!). Since we’re south of DC, traffic is generally a breeze barring a bad wreck on I-95, and with GPS with live traffic on my phone, that’s no longer as much of a concern either (and sometimes a great excuse to take a serendipitous detour through some backwoods place and grab a bite to eat!).

      We’ve never done a European cruise but I would love to one day if it fits in our schedule. Lately there have been a lot of very affordable European cruise deals (better than the Caribbean actually), but I’d rather spend the time on the ground in Europe than on a cruise since we’ve never been to Europe before (there goes my traveler street cred! 😉 ). If we’re over there vacationing and spot a great cruise deal, I’d definitely do it.

  3. How thorough is the initial luggage check when you get on board? Is it the same when you come back from a day at one of the ports? Do they put it through an x-ray or something?

    1. They xray the bags and might inspect them a bit if there’s anything suspicious. Not as through as TSA at the airport I would say.

      When coming back from days in port, they also xray your hand bags and book bags, but it’s usually the ship’s security crew doing the examinations, and they don’t get paid enough to care and scrutinize every single thing. You could easily stick a pint of something powerful in your pants pocket and I’d give you a 0% chance of getting caught. Or leave it in your bag and they might not catch it.

    1. I think it would be less fun to go alone unless you’re a strong extrovert. You could dine with a random group and do many of the activities on the ship to make new friends. If I were going alone, I’d probably do the group dinner just to have some social interaction and just bring a bag of books with me to read in a lounge chair on deck.

    2. I actually love cruising alone. I’ve done ~8 cruises with various friends/family and ~5 alone. I love cruising either way.

      I tend towards introversion and I like that I can choose how much social interaction I want to have on any given day. If I want more, I hang out at bars on ship or go to activities. When I don’t (more often), I’m somewhere on deck with my kindle (and, admittedly, often a drink). When travelling alone, I generally pick a set dining time so that I at least have the option of company at dinner.

      When travelling solo, my biggest issue to date has been well-meaning families who want to adopt the poor solo cruiser and drag me along to all of the activities they have planned. They mean well….but I don’t generally want to spend all my time with other people.

  4. Or you could go to your local university and ask the college freshmen about how all the cool kids are toting their alcohol these days 🙂

    Personally, in the presence of all that good food, I might have to stay away from alcohol anyhow.

    1. I think I left my interest in binge drinking with those same college freshmen. 🙂

      I’m with you on all the good free (pre-paid) food. Who has any room left for beer, wine or liquor or any sugary drinks?

  5. If you book your own tours beware of a potential downside. If it’s a tour that you’ve booked through them and something happens (e.g., bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere) the ship will wait for you. If you go off on your own and are late getting back the ship sails without you. I’ve met people who had to figure out how to get to the next port because something happened and they missed the sailing.

    So I’ve done a mixture with regard to tours. If its something relatively close into (e.g., city tour or picnic at the local beach) then I find a local tour company or taxi driver. OTHO if its a day trip to a sight several hours away I book through the ship.

    1. That’s a great point about missing the ship with private tours. And probably a great strategy to pick some tours to book privately but stick with ship-provided tours for the all day excursions or those traveling a few hours away. 99% of the time you would be fine on private tours, but that 1% chance of a very expensive set of flights to get to your next port (or missing the entire rest of your cruise!) is a scary prospect.

  6. Flights are usually pretty cheap for me since I’m flying out of NYC. At first I was skeptical of the on board entertainment, but the comedy and other shows really are great! And free! Plus most of the food is free unless there is fancy steak or Italian place on board. But sometimes instead of paying for dinner, they are sometimes free for lunch. So I’ve gone during lunch.

    1. I’ve been impressed by the on board performances too. We don’t ever go to live performances at home, but definitely enjoy them while on the cruise. Free is a nice price tag and we can leave the room a few minutes before show time and still get okay seats, whereas at home you have to pay, then drive, fight special event traffic, find parking, perhaps walk a long way, muddle through crowds, etc.

  7. Some good info here. I had always considered cruises to be too expensive, but this series has demystified that a bit. Regarding the over-priced alcohol, I found that pursuing healthier options (food, exercise) and frugality has shown me there’s very little room in my life for drinking, other than maybe a solid value beer on the porch with friends here and there.

    1. The price of a cruise in the off season compares favorably to a similar land based vacation if you can manage to skip most of the extras. I particularly like going on winter cruises in the Caribbean because we leave crappy weather behind and enjoy a week of reprieve from old man winter.

  8. We did one cruise to Alaska (leaving Vancouver) and did it cheaply (prior to being frugal). But we both hated being on the boat for so long. We much prefer having our own schedule to explore things and having to be back on the boat at a certain time just really bothered us. The best parts of that trip were the 3 days we spent in Vancouver before the cruise and the 3 days we spent in Anchorage after the cruise 🙂 I’ve always told my husband, there are two cruises I will be going on the rest of my life: through the Panama canal, and Antartica (because it’s rare to get there any other way…)

    1. The Panama canal cruise is on my bucket list. In the past there were some decent deals between California and Florida via the Panama Canal. Not sure if they still have great deals these days though.

      Antarctica would be cool (ha ha, get it? 😉 ). I saw some decent deals on Chile to Buenos Aires cruises for a decent price but I don’t think they go all the way down to Antarctica.

  9. These are good tips and I appreciate it as I will be going cruising soon. How embarrassing would it be to get caught with vodka in a water bottle. HAha. 700 dollars per cabin in extra fees is insane. How did your family do?

    1. I wouldn’t be embarrassed at all about the vodka in the water bottle. The security folks are usually 19 year old guys from Indonesia or the Philippines and they know the hustle. I’ve even been asked to smuggle liquor on board for one of them (I did; didn’t get caught; his buddy was the security screener). The only real consequence would be confiscation and returning the bottle to you at the end of the trip. I’ve never heard of the cruise lines booting a passenger over trying to smuggle a small quantity of liquor on board.

      As for extra fees, I think in all of our five cruises we’ve spent less than $200 total on board. $9 of that was a fruity drink with a collectible souvenir cup (which I’m not even sure we kept??) with the rest being extremely inexpensive liquor from the ship (they run sales typically on the first day and/or the last day). We also gambled a few bucks at the quarter and penny slots in our early cruising days. Never bought any photos, restaurant upgrades, drink packages, spa, excursions, etc. But I’ve watched others check their on board accounts at the ATM-like kiosk and watch the machine spit out page after page after page of room charges. Then the dudes were like “oh wow, it’s only $1200. I thought it would be a lot more.” Thank you good sir in front of me for drinking heavily while on board because you allow me to cruise on the cheap. 🙂

  10. Wow perfect timing, my wife and I live in Germany and we have seen some insane cruise deals (lidl and Aldi reisen if you have any German readers), so decided next year we’ll do a cruise. What surprises me is how few Germans are aware that Aldi is also a travel agency, they simply buy excess stock and sell it cheap, did a week in Rome half board, flights, hotel transfer etc for less than most pay just for the hotel!!!!!

    btw you may want to check out Nomatic Matt’s travel blog

    1. I’ve seen some really good Europe cruise deals lately. Didn’t know Aldi also sells cruises, but I’m very familiar with their groceries here in the eastern US – best overall prices around!

      1. Yeah you see there flyers everywhere but as mentioned a lot of people avoid them thinking they discount (ie lower quality) vacations

    1. It’s not fun but compares favorably to connecting flights, changing planes, airport-hotel-cruise shuttles, etc. At least on the long drive we can stop when we want, get out, stretch and walk around and make a day out of it. It’s always fun hopping off the interstate and realizing you have no idea where you are other than somewhere along a few hundred mile long stretch of I-95 in Florida between Jacksonville and Miami. 🙂

      And the week of decadence between the drive to/from Miami is very much worth it. 🙂

  11. I love this topic. First, a college degree is a luxury good. Second, I view college as something that can be funded on loan. If student loan interest rates are low, or a HELOC rate is low, I would suggest financing this over time instead.

    I plan on writing a detailed article about college hacking, but I don’t have my own blog yet as I work full time. (For the record I have two kids under 12 and a 529 account for the heck of it).

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